Tuesday, 17 January 2012

SAAB's Entire History Is For Sale. How Saad.

SAAB Sonnet on the left, one of very few MF-layout cars
As I'm sure you know from the horribly drawn-out and very public fall to bankruptcy, SAAB has gone bust. The weird and wonderful Swedish company lost it all, lest we forget, because a saving bid was blocked by General Motors, who didn't want the parts and platforms they were supplying to go to the Chinese operation that were interested in buying them. Damn you, GM. SAAB are cool. Secretly. Anyway, as part of the divorce, the Swedish bank has custody of the SAAB museum, featuring every significant model in the company's history, and much more besides, and they've just put it on sale. And so the saad ending of SAAB continues....

A SAAB museum is definitely a museum I would visit, were it not in Trollhättan in Sweden, where the company is based. As the picture above shows, you've got the very aerodynamic-looking early models with their peculiar two-stroke engines and V4s, the 600kg Sonnett roadster and the later coupés, the first of which was unusual in its mid-engined, front-wheel-drive layout (although the engine was still ahead of the cockpit), right up to the almost-present day stuff, eventually including the only surviving prototype of the 9-5 Estate, after SAAB crushes its last 100 cars as part of the receivership process. In-between those extremes, there are the tiny estate versions, the first car ever to have seatbelts, the first turbocharged family cars ever (and the first car to use a low-pressure turbo), the first cars to have a 16-valve engine, impact bumpers, split-field door mirrors (a bit like bifocal glasses, reducing blind spots), cabin pollen filters, rear passenger protection, ventilated front seats, CFC-free air con, active head restraints to lessen whiplash, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), the list goes on and on and on. Wikipedia lists a total of 28 items in the Innovations section of its article on SAAB Automobile, some of which (asbestos-free brake pads, for instance) are pretty important. A signature of all but two SAABs is a floor-mounted ignition column, which means that the driver's knee won't sustain any serious injury in a collision from ramming into the key. How considerate.

Alongside the cars, one of which is the original 1946 Ursaab, there are a few planes as well, as it is an important part of SAAB's history. Ten years before the Ursaab, they were an aerospace and defence company, and that part of SAAB is still around (only the car company went bust). Highlights of those include the curiously attractive supersonic 35 Draken, which was in service for 19 years from 1955, and the 37 Viggen (Swedish for Thunderbolt), which served as a short-medium range fighter jet for 20 years, starting in 1970. I don't know how many planes are in the museum, but there's at least one on the top picture. For a long time, the car company played on the idea that to own a SAAB was to own a jet fighter with wheels, and certainly the chances were good that it was powered in part by a turbine, assuming it's a 1978 99 Turbo or newer. Other highlights include friction testers with a fifth wheel in the boot that would scream down the runways of airports to tell aeroplanes how to adjust their braking distances and such, which works thusly:

A fifth wheel is mounted in the boot, connected to the rear wheels via a chain-drive. This wheel is deployed with about 300lb of downward force once the car is at speed; a built-in 10-15% slip of the fifth wheel allows for constantly varying calculations of surface friction. Sensors in the car transmit readings to the towers in almost real-time, allowing for very accurate changes to aircraft braking requirements on demand.

Again, I don't know if one of those is in the museum, but considering they were used globally for a long time, there's every chance. As well as the numerous successful rally cars in their history up to the 1980s, there might also be a 9-2X, which is essentially a GD-generation Subaru Impreza WRX estate with a SAAB's face on it which, I think, is slightly better-looking. But then SAABs have always had an interesting look about them, with three- or four-spoke wheels when most go for five or more, the "hockey stick" C-pillar (introduced in the '70s when the teardrop shape was replaced), the headlights that taper steeply upwards at the ends, the dashboard that curves towards the driver "like a jet-fighter", the smooth shapes of the newer cars like the last 9-5, they certainly had their own look, and I liked it, especially on the Aero-X concept from 2006, which they really should've made...

Aero-X Concept
Innovation and quriky good looks aren't enough to make a living though, otherwise I might be in a financial position to revive SAAB in 5 or 10 years' time (kidding, I'm not actually that innovative). SAAB fell into financial trouble more than once, and weren't exactly in the money before then, either. General Motors bought half the company in 1989, and a year after it put the 900 on the same platform as the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra in 1994, SAAB posted a profit for the first time in seven years. Build quality suffered, though. For their 50th anniversary in 1997, they replaced the ancient 9000 with the 9-5 (starting the trend for dashes in model names). They bought the company entirely in 2000, and put the new 9-3 on the same platform, only with much more Vectra in it and less unique styling, replacing the sloping hatchback with a humdrum saloon shape. Just eight years later though, SAAB were in trouble again, being put "under review" in 2008 when the credit crunch hit GM so hard it went bankrupt and had to kill off Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn. The Swedish arm survived, but it wasn't looking good, even going into administration the next year. Also-Swedish maker of automotive lunatics Koenigsegg was *pinches finger and thumb* this close to buying them, until they realised that the agreement with a total of four groups of investors was too hard to work with and they couldn't go through with it...

In January 2010, Dutch supercar builders Spyker beat offers from Renault F1 owners Genii Capital and Merbanco (whoever they are) to buy them in 2010, but SAAB were not out of the woods yet. The deal included GM sending over engines and transmissions from America, as well as finished 9-4X crossovers from Mexico. As SAAB restarted production, they were looking up, with plans for a new 9-3 by this year, plans to re-enter the Chinese market after GM pulled them out in '08 and expectations to sell 50-55k vehicles from July to the end of the year. In October, they changed their expectations to 30-40k, eventually selling 31,696 vehicles in total that year.

By 2011, despite Spyker Cars N.V planning to sell the sports car arm and focus entirely on SAAB, including renaming themselves to match, there were unpaid invoices that lead to supplies to Trollhättan being halted and production stopping in early April. Production restarted seven weeks later, but only lasted for a fortnight, as owners fought desperately for emergency funding from Hawtai and other Chinese companies and didn't find any, a lack of funding even meaning that the entire 3800-person workforce went unpaid in June, until they were forced to pay them on penalty of forced liquidation by a trade union. More missed pay, more subsequent pressure from trade unions and more failures to secure proper funding meant that in just six months, SAAB posted a loss of €201.5m, with revenues of €359m. Debt built up, as did bad press.

In September '11, SAAB petitioned for bankruptcy protection for the second time in less than three years, the plan being to stay above water while the Chinese companies Pang Da and Zhejiang Youngman got government approval from their own government, which would've allowed them to buy SAAB and get going on making three new cars(including a new 9-3 and bringing back the old teardrop-shaped 92) that could potentially have helped them level out, alas SAAB were rejected because Sweden doubted their ability to get the money needed to continue (understandably). By now the trade unions had had enough and requested SAAB be put into liquidation and petitioned for bankruptcy supervision of the company. Then GM stepped back in, saying that they did not want their licenses to go to a Chinese company, as they would be feeding a rival in a key market they're entering. SAAB tried and tried to work around it, but GM cockblocked any deal with Chinese people, and with offers not coming from anywhere else in the world, that was that.

On the 19th December, with production firmly at a halt, SAAB filed for bankruptcy. They're allowed to come out of bankruptcy again, technically, but however you look at it, the quirky, experimental Swedish car company originally started in 1946 by keen engineers, died a complete mess with no USP left and no chance of securing its future thanks to General Motors, who were wholly responsible after dumbing them down in the '90s and blocking Chinese deals. It seems that, in the end, the bad guys won.

And so we come back to the museum. Having written all this, I'm actually starting to feel rather upset about it. There are 123 cars in the museum, which is now closed of course, and every single one of them is up for sale, including the one original urSAAB from 1946, as part of the liquidation/bankruptcy agreement (full car list here). Unless there's a very keen SAAB enthusiast with a couple of million to spend on the entire collection, these cars will be split up and scatter all over the world, which is incredibly sad. With a company like this, the one thing that should exist now they're gone is a collection of their history, all in one place, to tell the story and show the cool SAAB few remember to the world (or anyone prepared to go to Sweden). Instead, it will vanish, and you'll have to rely on the internet, and an apparent tribute in the next series of TopGear (starting Jan 29th). It's not right to kick them like that when they're down, but apparently that's the world we're in.

Goodbye SAAB. Sorry it didn't work out.

UPDATE: I have good news regarding the buyers!


  1. Wow!
    Nice cars collection.Specially Aero-X Concept is the dream car for anyone and it's very sad news that SAAB's Entire History Is For Sale.I enjoyed reading your article, many thanks….I love this whole look! You are amazing.
    Vauxhall Car parts